April 5, 2023

By Diana Cheng
AAP Film & Arts Writer

Atsuko Maeda in “To the Ends of the Earth”
Image Credit: Courtesy of NYFF57

“To the Ends of the Earth” is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s newest feature, a U.S. premiere at the 57th New York Film Festival (NYFF) in the Main Slate program. True to its title, the film opens a window to a locale rarely seen on screen, the country of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic close to the Eurasian border. Acclaimed Japanese director Kurosawa (“Journey to the Shore”, 2015) showcases some stunning scenery along the silk road.

The feature is a commissioned work to commemorate 25 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Uzbekistan. This note however does not necessarily mean it’s a ‘National Geographic’ type of filmmaking to promote tourism. Surely, viewers get the chance to see the famous landmarks of the country such as the 1,400-seats Navoi Theater, the Chorsu Bazaar (the largest market in Central Asia), and Lake Aydar, but writer/director Kurosawa deftly link such points of interest to a narrative, weaving them organically with his storyline, adding a personal touch to the travelogue.

The narrative is about a Japanese TV crew on location in Uzbekistan to shoot a travel reality show. The main thrust of the story rests on the TV host, a young reporter Yoko (Atsuko Maeda). Kurosawa lets viewers see both the making of and the actual footage of the shoot presented in a smaller frame. The juxtaposition of the two is where he embeds his comedic effects. Pouring herself fully into her job, Yoko endures some arduous and unpleasant demands, one is eating food not fully cooked. But the moment she faces the camera, she quickly changes her demeanor to enthusiasm as if savoring delicious local cuisine.

While in Uzbekistan, Yoko is linked by text messages to her boyfriend at home. He does not appear on screen but we can hear her quietly reading out the text she is typing. Such messages are her emotional ties to a loved one in her home country while she’s at the ends of the earth. Technology and the post-modern traveller: home is always at hand.

Kurosawa leads viewers to follow Yoko as she ventures out on her own to explore the streets, catching public transportation to seek out famous landmarks, finding her way in the dark alleys, and eventually getting into trouble with the police. Through these narratives, Kurosawa brings out a thematic element that is realistic: language barrier and cultural clashes can lead not only to misunderstanding but fear. A young, foreign woman on her own, wandering the streets and unknown places do generate suspense and anxiety.

While at the police station, the official delivers a notable line: “If we don’t talk to each other, we can’t get to know each other.” With stark realism, Kurosawa conveys effectively a well-meaning motif promoting mutual understanding.

Yoko is played by Atsuko Maeda, a popular Japanese singing-idol-turned-actor, a former member of the J-Pop girl band AKB48. In the film, Yoko’s Uzbekistan experience is a self-exploratory journey that leads to a personal awakening. Her ultimate goal is not to be a TV personality but a singer. In a dream sequence, Maeda gets the chance to go on stage in the Navoi Theater belting out the well-known “Hymne à l’amour”, composed by Marguerite Monnot for Édith Piaf. In a moving wrapping up towards the end, she reprises the song.

“To the Ends of the Earth” is a mixed bag of melodrama, realism, suspense, and music video, stylishly directed. Maeda’s youthful and naive demeanor makes a natural asset here playing Yoko. Overall, a positive attempt at bringing out the need for inter-cultural understanding and international cooperation.

The 57th NYFF run by Film at Lincoln Center is currently taking place from September 27 to October 13. For the full program and schedule visit their website.

Contact Diana Cheng at [email protected] or visit at Twitter @Arti_Ripples or visit her blog Ripple Effects rippleeffects.reviews

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